Everybody knows his names.

"First it was, 'Hey, Cheers!'

"Then, 'Hey, Sam!'

"Now I'm getting, 'Ted!' " says Ted (Sam Malone) Danson of "Cheers." "Which is very confusing, because my first reaction is, 'Oh, I know these people. Or they know me.' It's nice, like walking around in a small town."

In "Cheers," Sam Malone is the ex-jock, reformed alcoholic and unrepentant womanizer who owns and tends the little Boston neighborhood bar that gives the Emmy Award-winning series its name. His uptown/downtown banter with overeducated barmaid Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) has resurrected the kind of repartee that Hepburn and Tracy did so well, and the cast of characters who inhabit the bar is very much a cast of characters.

At closing time, though, Ted Danson's fans wouldn't know him at all.

"I never go to bars. I have never been to bars," he confesses. "I sometimes feel I'm being a bit of a phony. I have the soul of an alcoholic, I know what addiction means, but for some reason there's no problem between me and liquor. And I'm not a womanizer. As a matter of fact, Sam Malone has been wonderful for me. I get to live out a whole neglected area of my life.

"He's the American male in flux," Danson says of his alter ego, adding, "I'm very bad about being able to talk about my work when I'm in it. I don't think I knew Sam Malone, or what he was about, until the second year."

Even now, to describe Sam is "really tough for me. I've heard much more intelligent comments from people who've seen the show four or five times, and I've lived it."

Still, Danson gives it a shot. "He's an ex-relief pitcher, burned-out jock, reformed alcoholic, owner of a bar, womanizer, streetwise. For the longest time all he knew were groupies. I've noticed a little sadness in him recently. I don't know why. There's a tinge of melancholy about the guy."

Is that Danson's choice? "No. Yeah. It's just popping up.

"It's very weird. Even though 'Cheers' is incredibly well done -- a well-written, intelligent show -- it's still bizarre. It's a little bit like a soap opera to be doing the same character over and over. You can't tell what's you and what's him. I grew a lot out of doing Sam Malone. I was very sensitive and I was on the opposite end of macho. Sam gave me a chance to grab my boleros and strut a little, which is something I needed to do as a person to balance that out. I mean, I truly have grown as a man, playing Sam."

Also, he's learned to tend bar.

"I went to bartenders school for two weeks," Danson says proudly, reaching for his wallet. "As a matter of fact, I have my little bartender's card. I remember coming back depressed one night when I'd barely passed the quiz of the day at bartenders school, and my wife says, 'You're an actor, you don't have to worry about it, you fool!' "

Danson, 36, grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., the son of an archeologist-museum director. At 13 he was bundled off to Kent, a private boys' school in Connecticut, where he had his first role, in Martin Duberman's "In White America," the kind of plays they do in schools like that.

"I thought it was almost as nifty as basketball, but not quite," Danson recalls. "I was a basketball jock, period. The rest of the time I lined the football fields for my fellow jocks and other humiliating things. My body seemed to hold together just long enough for basketball but would fall apart if I tried to make it do anything else. I was 6 feet and 120 pounds," he says. "I was painfully, painfully thin."

He would eventually grow two more inches and fill out enough to be lanky but not lean. Kent would be the end of Danson's jock adventures, although he still draws on distant glories for Sam. "I think I'm probably a frustrated athlete," he sighs. "I think it's a common disease. I think a lot of actors would much rather be athletes. But I definitely feel like I have the heart of a jock. I mean, I love basketball with a burning passion, it's what got me through high school. I may not be an athlete, but I feel I have the soul of an athlete."

All that thinking and soulful feeling may sound more like Diane than Sam, and Danson concedes that his character does sometimes get the short end of the shtick.

"It's a constant battle, because a lot of the time it's fun to do dumb jokes, but not all the time," he says. "Sometimes I play Sam blatantly dumb, and I think that's a mistake. Basically I think he doesn't want to be smart. Especially because who you're gauging him against is Diane, so it's like, 'No thanks, I'd rather talk straight and communicate than do the verbal trip that she's on.' I think Sam's smart enough to keep it an ambiguity whether he is bright or not."

Danson's Washington stopover -- he was between red-eyes from and back to California -- was on behalf of Futures for Children, an American Indian self-help program for which he is a spokesman.

"In Flagstaff, I lived out in a scientific community," Danson says. "My father is director of a museum dedicated to the natural history of the region, and the arts and crafts of the Hopi and Navajo Indian tribes. So there were a lot of Hopis and Navajos and ranchers' kids in my life. It was really an idyllic growing-up. And my best friend Raymond Coyne was a Hopi, grew up to be a vice chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council."

Coyne asked Danson to help with Futures, a program of financial sponsorships that encourages Indian kids to stay in school. "The normal dropout rate is 60 percent," Danson points out, "but it's less than 10 percent for kids who are sponsored. Without education you're in trouble, you're not going to go anywhere. That's the main purpose, keep the kids in school, educate them. And it's working."

Graduating from Kent, Danson remembers "leaving the parking lot thinking, 'I've got to make something out of myself. Will I make it -- whatever "it" is?' " He ended up at Stanford for two years ("I just played around, didn't know what I wanted to do"), slipped into acting ("fell head over heels in love with it"), transferred immediately to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh ("a good acting school"), then went to New York "for seven years, then to L.A. for seven years, and that's where I've been."

That's the short version, excluding certain salient details, such as the pie ads that dressed Danson in yellow tights and sent him prancing down the street as a lemon chiffon box with his fellow chocolate, vanilla and butterscotch boxes (eventually he graduated to being the Aramis Man); roles in the soaps "The Doctors" and "Somerset"; a year on the road with "The Real Inspector Hound," including a run at the Kennedy Center; meeting his future wife Casey at an est seminar and managing the Actor's Institute for a year and a half; and roles in the movies "The Onion Field," "Body Heat" and "Creepshow," and various television series.

And it leaves out the kind of real-life drama that would make a compelling television movie. In 1979 Casey Danson, an environmental designer, spent the last two months of her pregnancy confined to bed with abnormally high blood pressure. On the day before Christmas, during childbirth, a capillary burst in her brain, leaving her paralyzed on the left side. Her speech was slurred, and it would be three weeks before she could even move.

"It took three years of big-time, full-time, grit-your-teeth therapy to get her about 90 percent back," Danson says. "It's miraculous that she recovered. The doctors were telling me maybe she will walk, she definitely will not have the use of her arms. They painted a really black, black picture. But Casey's a very courageous woman, and she worked her behind off. Having a baby crawling around which she wanted to hold was what inspired her."

What Danson doesn't mention is that it was he who dressed her, fed her, helped her exercise, made her up, cared for the baby. "We had therapists coming in just about every day, and as a matter of fact I tried to stay away from it, but when somebody can't walk. . ."

Casey and Kate, now five, both started walking about the same time, when Kate was eight months old. In the meantime Danson's career took off with "Cheers." "The less you think about conceptual things like career," he says, "the better."

There is now a second daughter, Alexis, seven months old, and Casey Danson is much better. "Her ankles and left foot don't work, so she has a limp and can't run," says her husband, "but you wouldn't notice when she walks. It was a biggie -- big, big, big, big -- but now it's behind us, or at least incorporated into us so much that it's not heavy anymore."

"Cheers" was put together by Les and Glen Charles and James Burrows, who had worked on "M*A*S*H" and "Taxi." They wanted to do an ensemble show, and originally Sam was going to be an ex-football player. When the tall, lanky Danson got the job, the sport was recast as baseball, though he had never played. And, like that other Thursday ensemble show, "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers" established its current success the long, hard way.

"The people involved were bright, sensible, funny people," Danson says. "It felt good, it felt right. You could tell by the first script. We are all completely different. Shelley and I are almost as different in some ways as Sam and Diane. What's remarkable is that we're all so different and yet we respect and admire and love each other and allow the incredible differences to exist, which is what I think makes for an interesting group of people to work with."

Following the death last week of actor Nicholas Colasanto, who played "Coach," Danson said, "As an actor I will miss him very much. As Sam Malone, I miss him as I would a father."

The flow of adult one-liners, at once sophisticated and razor-sharp, makes "Cheers" the kind of television worth taping (according to a recent VCR survey, it's the most heavily recorded prime-time program on the air). "When you laugh, you're laughing at the writers," Danson says, giving credit where credit is long overdue. "They're quick, good. Our contribution is we can tell them what works and doesn't work, either by showing them or telling them, like telling them I need some ammunition, especially when I'm one on one with Shelley. I ask them to make sure my gun's loaded, please."

Still, Danson is caught between the show's success and his own aspirations. "You naturally have to be careful. If your character's on for eight years, you're liable to be stuck into that kind of persona. I feel pretty lucky that I've been able to jump around a little bit and keep things up in the air this long. All of the characters on 'Cheers' are pretty fully fleshed out, they're real people, and you can buy the actors moving off and doing other things."

"And before 'Cheers' I was a character actor, as far as I was concerned. I was not a leading man in my head. 'Cheers' really gave me that."

As for the show's future, "I think we've got a couple of years. We'll get our five years. I think anything beyond that would be hard for everybody involved. 'M*A*S*H' was a remarkable show along that line, but even there you had audiences coming and going. I feel like I have the best possible situation."

Danson's recent Golden Globe Award for his role as the incestuous father in "Something About Amelia" confirmed his dramatic skills. "I like making people laugh," he says, "but if I don't mix it up for myself, I get a little crazy."

" 'Amelia,' " he points out, "was not difficult to choose to do, it was difficult to do. William Hanley wrote an incredibly moving story, so I had a great script and a chance to work with Glenn Close, whom I find a remarkable actress, and a really good director, Randa Haines. For an actor, that's what you're looking for. Plus I knew 'Cheers' was on the air.

"Perhaps it was a risk. My decision to do it was not noble, it was a pure actor's choice. Plus it was a titillative, potentially exploitable subject handled beautifully, so you've got one of those built-in audiences that are going to tune it in and then you can sock it to them in a real way."

Danson finished a film his last time off from "Cheers," an "offbeat love story" called "Little Treasures" with Burt Lancaster and Margot Kidder that will be released in the next two or three months. And before "Cheers" goes back into production, he'll film "The Practice," a medical potboiler with Christine Lahti, Jeff Bloom and Jamie Lee Curtis.

In three weeks he goes to work with Howie Mandel of "St. Elsewhere" on Blake Edwards' "The Music Box," which is being pegged as a broad slapstick comedy.

"You know the last 30 minutes in a Blake Edwards movie, where there are at least five or six huge belly laughs? This is a whole movie of that, a chase from beginning to end. We're not talking story, plot, characters -- it's just chase, physical comedy, hopefully, at its best. It's a very funny script."